*By Katja Dorothea Buck
Together with the heads of the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian and Indian Orthodox Churches, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) celebrated on Saturday evening in Berlin an ecumenical prayer for Christians in the Middle East. The jointly prepared service was the highlight of a historic visit. For the first time, Pope Tawadros II, Patriarch Ignatius Afrem II, Catholicos Karekin II and Catholicos Baselios Morthoma Paulose II visited together in Germany to inform political and church representatives on the bad and sad situation in the region of origin of Christianity.
For the Berlin Dome it has been a historic moment to host this unique ecumenical prayer. Never in the 112 years history of this Evangelical church building in the center of the German capital has the colorful variety of Christian faith been more obvious. Prayers, lectures and hymns were performed in Aramaic, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, English and German. Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian and Coptic church choirs contributed with their respective liturgical music.
“It's a great honor for the Evangelical Church in Germany that the four Oriental churches accepted the invitation to come to Germany to celebrate Reformation, to share their suffering and to pray with us”, said Bishop Prof. Dr Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairperson of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD).
He reminded the faithful that the Oriental churches are already present in Germany through their local communities. “Today 250,000 Oriental Christians are living among us and the Oriental churches are doing a tremendous effort in keeping their identity on the one side and in integrating the people into the German society on the other. We admire how greatly they manage this double task.”
The German Bishop Gerhard Feige who represented that evening the Catholic Conference of Bishops in Germany reminded people of the big differences in the realities of the life in the Western world and in the Middle East. “We in Germany are not delivered to violent attacks. Many Oriental Christians must hear differently the Beatitude ‘Happy are those who are attacked on account of righteousness: for the kingdom of heaven will be theirs.’ Jesus promised those who follow him persecution”, the Catholic bishop said. “If there were no Oriental church anymore in the Middle East we in the Western world would dearly miss something essential. Their liturgies, their traditions and their respective history are a precious gift to us.”
Patriarch Ignatius Afrem II from the Syrian Orthodox Church thanked EKD for the invitation which gave the patriarchs the opportunity to discuss during the last four days with political leaders and representatives of the churches in Germany the sad situation of Christians in the Middle East. “Thousands of people were killed. Many people had to endure martyrdom. Hundreds of churches were destroyed. We are grateful that we were able to tell our story”, the patriarch said and reminded the 800 people in the dome the fate of the two Syrian bishops who were kidnapped in April 2014.
“We are thankful to be invited to celebrate with the German Evangelical Church the 500 years of Reformation which brought many positive elements”, Ignatius Afrem continued. “Reformation reminds us all to be faithful in the Gospel. But it also brought division in the body of Christ.” In the 18th and 19th century Protestant missionaries came to the Middle East to evangelize among the Orthodox faithful and created new churches, he explained. “Today we recognize our Protestant sisters and brothers. But we are concerned that there are new Evangelical groups proselytizing among our members. They take advantage of their sad situation.”
His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of all Armenians, emphasized the guidance the Beatitudes give in times of confusion. “When religious intolerance and conflict get part of the daily life of innocent people; when murder and persecution are part of the ideology of fundamentalist; when the destruction of old religious cultural values and the forced expulsion of people from the cradle of Christianity are justified through falsified and corrupted religious messages, Jesus recalls us again to join and to follow him in his footsteps.”
His Holiness Baselius Marthoma Paulose II from the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church remembered the long relation of his church to the Oriental churches in the Middle East and that these common roots made feel the people in South India on the side of their sisters and brothers in the Middle East.
Because of health problems, Pope Tawadros from the Coptic Orthodox Church had to cancel his participation at the prayer service. Bishop Damian from the Coptic diocese in Germany spoke in his place and admitted that a dream was fulfilled that evening: “It’s a personal joy for me to see the Oriental churches join together, to hear the beautiful language of the Syrian Orthodox Church, to see the dances of the Ethiopians and to listen to the Armenian hymns”, he said and asked EKD to host more ecumenical gatherings. “It is good to talk with us instead of talking about us”, he said and closed his keynote with a quotation of Pope Tawadros. “If one day there were no Christians anymore in the countries around the Mediterranean peace and stability in the region and in the whole world would be in danger.“
The ecumenical prayer service was the official closing of a two-day conference for dialogue between EKD and the Oriental churches.
*Katja Dorothea Buck is a journalist who covers religions and politics in Germany.